Nightmare in paradise
By Irfan Husain
IT was around this time of the year when I last visited Swat over a decade ago. An old friend from Turkey was with me, and we shivered in the cold at the archaeology department rest house where we stayed.
The peaks overlooking the valley were covered in snow, as was the countryside as we drove along the partly frozen Swat river. Recalling various trips to the magical valley over the years, I am sorry for all those who can no longer venture there. But apart from the many tourists who are forever denied the beauty of the place, I pity the people of Swat who have been so badly let down by the Pakistani state. Tens of thousands have been forced to flee their homes as Swat descends deeper into chaos and despair.
‘Mullah Radio’ was the name given to Maulana Fazlullah for his daily FM broadcasts in which he called, among other things, for people to stop their children from getting anti-polio shots. According to him, the government teams going around immunising kids against this dreaded disease were actually making them sterile. Terrified, the paramedics halted their efforts in Swat.
I wrote at the time that the government should immediately put a stop to the maulana’s illegal broadcasts. But this was before 9/11, at a time when Musharraf was wooing the mullahs and the jihadis. So Mullah Radio and his kind gathered strength and gained supporters, confident that the authorities would not lay a finger on them. And now that push has finally come to shove, the army has discovered that it does not have the muscle to displace the militants who have taken over Swat.
In a sobering piece on this page last week, Zubeida Mustafa underlined the plight of the people of Swat, and asked why there were no large protests against the killers who were terrorising the valley. Why not indeed? It is a sad fact that while we Pakistanis are (rightly) incensed over the recent assault on Gaza, and other attacks on Muslims by non-Muslims, we choose to turn a blind eye by even worse Muslim-on-Muslim atrocities.
Thus, most editorial writers, columnists and TV commentators reserve their fury and invective for western targets, while glossing over what Muslims are doing to their fellow Muslims. In Swat, there have been grisly beheadings and public executions. Every evening, Shah Doran broadcasts names on the militant hit-list, presumably on Mullah Radio’s old FM frequency. Nearly 200 girls’ schools have been blown up or torched. Scores of video rental shops and hair-cutting establishments have been attacked and forced to shut down. Women dare not leave their homes, and 80,000 girls have been deprived of an education.
Currently, some 4,000 militants are battling 12,000 troops for control of the valley, and thus far, the terrorists are winning. According to reporters who have been covering the conflict, our army has been reluctant to engage the enemy, preferring to lob artillery shells in the general direction of militant redoubts in the mountains. As soon as night falls, our soldiers retreat into their camps while the jihadis rule the valley. In their ranks are a large number of fighters with Central Asian features.
If this situation has been allowed to develop in Swat, an integral part of the Frontier Province, and not a tribal area, imagine what things must be like in Waziristan and Mohmand agencies. Clearly, things are rapidly spinning out of control, and the government cannot establish its writ over large parts of the country. Many efforts have been made to engage the terrorists in a dialogue. Each one has failed as the jihadis, sensing the weakness of the Pakistani state, and thriving on the support they get from so many TV talk-show hosts and their guests, go for the jugular.
Without wanting to cast doubts on the courage of our soldiers engaged in a difficult battle, I must question the tactics being deployed. Counter-insurgency operations are now a central part of the training many armies impart. But we have stuck to conventional warfare training, based on the assumption that our enemy is India. This one-dimensional approach has failed to equip our officers and soldiers with the tactics to beat the irregular but well-equipped forces they now face across the northwest.
But more than the inadequate military preparations that have handicapped us in our fight-back against the jihadis is the lack of a political consensus. With the country’s two biggest political parties, the PPP and the PML-N, locked in a bitter power struggle, those in power have little time to focus on the real danger facing Pakistan.
For its part, the media seems to be united on only one thing: hostility towards the West, and specifically, on criticism of the American drone attacks against militant targets in Fata. The truth few Pakistanis are willing to face is that almost every such missile attack has killed and wounded militants, both foreign and home-grown. And while there have been a number of civilians killed and hurt, this is the unfortunate price for providing shelter to terrorists. If this sounds callous, ponder over the alternatives: who else would go after these killers? As our army has demonstrated time and again, it has neither the capability, nor the intelligence, to rid us of these killers.
Our leaders, both in and out of uniform, have repeatedly said such attacks are ‘counter-productive’. So how about launching some ‘productive’ attacks that would convince the Americans (and us Pakistanis) that we are capable of fighting these jihadis on our own? Again, without wishing to belittle the courage or the sacrifices of our soldiers, we must recognise that so far, the war is going very badly for us.
At this stage of the battle, it is too late to pin the blame on the individuals and institutions responsible for having allowed this situation to develop. If we wish to turn the tide, different tactics are needed. One thing that might focus minds is for the army to organise trips to the battlefield for politicians and journalists. Let them share what the people of Swat are going through, even if for a couple of days. Perhaps then they might see where the real danger lies.